NY State Wildlife Pathologist Dr. Ward Stone Meets with FBA

By Ray & Kimberly Feliciano

On July 21, Dr. Stone will have been with the DEC for 35 years straight. Recently, he took some of that time to speak with the FBA. As we toured the Delmar facility near the Five Rivers Nature Preserve, Dr. Stone expressed his concern for the environment. “There are a lot of good things about America, but these are very dangerous times,” he said.

Q: What is your job as NYS Wildlife Pathologist?

To diagnose the causes of sickness and death in the state's wildlife. That's heavily toward the West Nile this summer. We are also looking for Chronic Wasting Disease. We will take samples from hundreds of deer in late summer. We are also studying the impact of Botulism in Lake Erie. We are looking for any kind of new diseases that might be headed our way. Whatever the cause of sickness and death, we do the forensic pathology.

NY State Wildlife Pathologist Dr. Ward Stone - 62.76 K
NY State Wildlife Pathologist -
Dr. Ward Stone

Q: So there was a new $180,000 facility opened last year? A Necropsy room?

“Yes. It’s a new room and we want to add to that room.” Dr. Stone lead us just outside the room where they test for the West Nile Virus. It’s a “low pressure room” so air rushes in, but no air will leave the room when the door is opened. It has a sophisticated exhaust system that filters air going out and allows fresh air in. “Very little air is from the building. It posed a problem in January because we had so much fresh air coming in from below zero that it was in the 40’s inside the room. It was like a refrigerator in there.” Stone said they need heat in the room.

“We’re pretty sophisticated for a state DEC. Of all the states, I think we’re #1. That might not be on facilities, but on discoveries. I’d say higher than the top 20%. That’s not my goal, but it is a struggle to stay modern, and it’s a struggle to get the money to update your facility. I don’t think we are doing anywhere near what should be done, not even close.” Stone said they get some federal funding and support from different parts of the state.

“In our division, we’re considered not even essential.” The Friday of Reagan’s funeral Dr. Stone was ordered to shut down the facility. “Reagan was a good president, but he never shut nothin’ down. I wanted my people to work. Seems it’s better to be paid and not here, than ready to do the job.” Turns out that Stone and his staff worked that Friday anyway. “It’s not an easy place to run because of the way the system works.” Stone is particularly adamant to continue the work due to the current terrorism threats.

“There’s only one pathologist here and these people make almost nothing. They get a lot of special training. We have trouble keeping them on for the year because of the layoffs.” Stone expressed that it’s not easy to work like that, especially when at any moment it could be bio-terrorism in NYC, or like that day, the unusual deaths of birds. “We got about 50 birds in today from NYC alone, and you’re talking about a pretty small staff. The higher administrators cut people so they could stay in power., so they have money and can out rate. This game has been going on for a long time.”

Q: What would you like to see done to modernize?

“We need to rebuild it for the future, so that it can run experiments, hold animals, and have a better disinfectant pattern. They moved most everybody out of here to downtown on Broadway. There’s some field work going on out there, and some people come out here. Primarily, it made them more of a bureaucracy, a meeting-oriented kind of group.”

Q: Are you experiencing budget constraints, even more so recently?

“Well, I’m one of the luckier ones in that I have more budget than they do. I think a lot of people, as budget restrictions hit them, they haven’t got anything to do, except reading emails and things like that, and that’s life for them. I think a lot of people are disgruntled. They don’t have the feeling of productivity that they had a decade or more ago.”

Q: Are you looking for people to assist?

“We use volunteers a lot. I’ve operated with volunteers all the way. It’s essential.” To contribute or volunteer, please call DEC (518) 478-3032.

Q: What is the process of receiving animals with potential rabies?

“We can get a call about anything at any moment, just like this was a call about 33 dead birds from the county of Chautauqua, from their health department.” When potential rabies comes in, Dr. Stone said he decides whether or not it might be rabid, what the history is, and whether or not a rabies test is necessary. The head is removed from the animal, which might be a cow, for instance. The carcass is taken care of and Stone orders a rabies test from the Health Department Rabies Lab in Guilderland.

“Rabies is pretty prevalent in the raccoon. They live in attics, they go into cellars, into crawl spaces. It’s widespread. That’s home to them. We’ve taken the places with the trees, and they try to adapt to it. They are wise, intelligent species and they’ve done well.” He said the key is getting them out humanely, especially when there are babies. “The mother raccoon will move out of the place with those babies before too long, and then you’ll have to repair the place, make it so that they can’t get in.”

Stone said that rabies contracted from a raccoon is especially a problem for children because they will play around and get into the feces. Children could touch the feces and put their fingers in their mouths. “These eggs hatch out in the body and go to the organs, and to the spinal cord and brain. It kills people, can cause blindness, along with other health threats.”

Q: Do you test mosquitoes for the West Nile Virus?

Stone said that the Health Department tests mosquitoes. “We do most, if not all, birds, and so you’re talking about thousands of birds. We also test squirrels, and other things for West Nile because we don’t know what other mammals the virus might go into.”

Q: Do you feel optimistic about Sematech, Albany’s upcoming technological epicenter, including Environmental and Energy Sciences?

“No. You have all the industry coming in, yet it’s a seemingly ‘clean’ industry, but you have to look at all of these chips and their makeup because there’s a lot of metals and stuff that are not anywhere nearly as benign as they’ve said they are, especially once they get out into the landfills, thrown away.” Besides that, Stone said the buildings require a lot of support, there would be highway changes, and more people means more development. “So it means degradation of the environment, is what it means.”

Regarding the contention that the technology could be applied to the rest of the world, Stone said, “Yeah, they always say that. You see more growth, you see more malls. When Americans get to be more and in tune with that, that’s the way they think the world is, and they get less and less in contact with reality, to know where water comes from, where food comes from.” Stone says we’re weird in a lot of ways because on the one hand, “we might eat five chickens in a week, and then worry about saving some bird in another part of the world, without paying attention to how these chickens are raised.” Stone has nothing against eating chicken, but believes looking into what you’re eating and where our food comes from is important to think about.

Q: What about the increased population and sprawl?

“In recent years we have more immigrants coming in than we have people born to citizens. So, with the immigration and the new people being born, our population expanse has been more than what was thought to be likely. I think we put too much money into ourselves. Some of us more excessively than others. We could drive more economical vehicles. These hybrids will be nice with high mileage, and that’s the kind of things we need.”

Stone suggests that we do something to make the children of immigrants more environmentally conscious, but that it’s imperative to train our own people first. “Mom and dad have to live an environmentally sound life, which is hard to do. That’s probably the absolute key, having mom and dad involved, a role model for the kids.”

Q: We previously covered a cougar story, and have received several calls of recent sightings, even kittens being sighted in Vermont.

“There’s no doubt they are expanding in range. I would not be surprised to find them here. One was shot in Saratoga County a few years ago. When I got it, I looked at the DNA, particularly in the mitochondria for the mom’s portion of the inheritance. We found in the DNA South American mountain lion.” This indicated the cat was imported."

Q: Will the DEC acknowledge that cougars are back?

“I sent a biologist over about a horse, but he did not come back with the it. I wanted the horse in order to do a post-mortem in one of these rooms here, to get the kind of testing that needs to be done. All we got were the pictures.” He pointed out their photos in our December 2003 issue of The Informed Constituent. “The coyotes might have been responsible for that horse. There was a circle where they thrashed around, but we did not see any evidence of a mountain lion. Scientists cannot say that something is something unless they have the evidence to prove it, and certainly, I did not see any evidence of a mountain lion being involved.” Regarding the fang marks on the horse’s neck, coyotes bite necks too. “Cats typically bite necks around the windpipe so the animal can’t breathe.”

“You look at the map, and you see they are expanding this way from the Western part of the country. I would not be surprised more are here, but where is the good photo? You got to have the mountain lion placed with a spot, some kind of geographic feature to go with that picture to place it. I know people like Jim Close with the DEC who’s very into following the mountain lions.”

“There’s been stories that the DEC purposely released mountain lions to control the deer herd, and this is not true. The first person to be able to nail down that there really is a wild mountain lion would be get some fame and glory for that. There would be some zoological notoriety. You want to stay reputable, and I’ve been pretty lucky about staying reputable. It is a continuous battle to stay that way, though.”

“We’re getting better, but all these things take money and they take investigations. Field work is not cheap. They need to change it so they hire people so they have better salaries and don’t have 40-hour weeks.”

Q: So is the problem the lack of staff?

“Well, you got to know how to do it, and you got to have the technology to go with it. Looking for mountain lions is not our highest priority. On a day like this, my highest priority is diagnosing West Nile Virus, things where animal and human health is threatened. Human health is the highest priority of the DEC. We do work closely with the Health Departments, but there would have to be a lot more personnel, a lot more field work, and the academics are not going to pick up the slack, by far.”

ward_stone_02.jpg - 50.34 K
From behind a glass, an assistant confers with
Dr. Stone regarding a dead bird specimen
being tested for West Nile Virus.
(Photos by Kimberly Feliciano)

Q: Have you been warned to not talk to the press?

“Oh yeah. It’s actually been good being a public scientist. There are times when there’s a lack of freedom, lack of freedom of speech, but if you have a good offense you can fight back, and I can fight back. I don’t give a sh*t. I haven’t for a long time. They worry about their careers, and worry about where they’re going, and I’ve never worried much about that. They don’t really do it to me like they do to others, because I just do it anyway. It was particularly heavy back in the Quomo administration. There hasn’t been any problems with the Pataki administration as far as talking with the press.”

Stone said he gets pressure from industry, like Reynold’s Metals, and from the malls. “My kids warn me not to go to Crossgates Mall. I don’t go to Crossgates Mall ever! It’s a horrible place. There’s already an old mall here, Colonie, which took some Pine Bush, but Crossgates took Pine Bush when they knew about the limited habitat. So, that’s not a place that I think we should spend money. Well, it makes no difference because 99% of the people go there, time passes, and people forget.”

“For people who are trying to do something about the environment, you really have to work at it, and you have to be at it all the time. It’s a lifetime commitment and a lifetime bit of action that you have to do. Every day you have to be on the side of the environment.”

Dr. Stone is surprised that so many people have disappeared from the movement. “I think the younger generations are exceptionally busy. When the parents are working, and kids are organized in soccer and the rest, who the heck is really influencing these kids? Then you find kids can’t read because they spend so much time playing video games and watching TV.”

“We seem to have some fine teachers in the very early grades, people saying great things about the world, taking care of the environment, not picking on any ethnic group or religion, very broadminded. But as soon as the kids get into middle school, the greed comes in, the hormones kick in, and it pulls kids in different directions.”

Q: What’s the status on Lyme Disease?

“There’s going to be a lot of talk about this next week, about Lyme Disease and West Nile. We got our first case of West Nile in a bird in Delmar just a couple of days ago. I’m really concerned about Lyme Disease. Not only is it something that’s causing a lot of sickness in humans, but it’s also modifying the way we live.” He talked of many people not experiencing nature. “I’d say it’s an overreaction. I would do it anyway, but that’s my decision.”

If you find a tick, Stone suggests pulling it out using tissue paper in order to capture the material for testing. “If you get that tick off before 24 hours, you are not going to get Lyme Disease from that bite. I know it’s hard to believe. If you get it off right away, you’re okay. The good thing is that when ticks feed they don’t feed again for a long time, about a month or so. In general, the conditions in the house are not suitable for them to survive.

Symptoms include rashes and achy muscles,. People should talk to their doctor so the doctor can run tests. Dr. Stone said people need to remember to look children over at bath time. You don’t have to leave your backyard to get Lyme Disease. Your kids can be playing and just brush up against the shrubs. Stone has a daughter who got Lyme Disease this way. She was immediately taken to the pediatrician, and saved by antibiotics.

“One of my high priorities would be to do something about Lyme Disease. To either find a vaccine or something that would limit the tick populations without destroying the environment, like the bacteria we are using on mosquitoes. It would be nice to do that so people would not get sick, but also because it would get people back into the environment. Many young parents who have not been out in the environment much themselves decide to plop their kids down in front of a computer game, throw a couple of videos on. We are limiting our environmental activities.”

Q: Do you talk to the legislators?

Stone said there was an Assemblyman on the Conservation Committee who had a way of getting heard. “Now it’s much quieter about the environment. We’re not meeting and talking about the animals and what’s going on as much as we once did. The animals are easy to consider.”

“It’s because they (the administrators) are looking at the money, they are looking at themselves. They got a seat on Broadway. They’re not doing any work. I got the live animals. They’re alive.”

Q: What about invasive species?

“The invasive species is incredibly important. There’s so many and we’ve always had them coming in. They are not all bad. For example, the dandelion. You can cook them up, they are high in vitamin C. Trying to get rid of them is an eternal battle. To me, they are more good than bad. On the other hand, there are some invasive species that do a lot of damage, like water chestnuts and the Longhorn Beetle.” Dr. Stone said one reason we are having trouble with invasive species is because of all the advancements in transportation and speed. “It takes just one insect, and today fish can be shipped across the world.”

Q: Could a terrorist create an invasive species that was manipulated genetically to be more aggressive or dangerous?

“Yes, if you have the right scientist that is demented, they could make their own virus using genetic engineering. It’s already been done by government scientists. There are people who are living their lives to develop the most heinous weapons that they can. I’m not interested in doing that, but I’m interested in thinking about it because I want to think about what they might be thinking so I can counter it. We got to weed those people out. We should find those who made Anthrax and get them out. They could do it again, and I’m afraid they might do it again late this summer.”

Q: How easy would it be for terrorists to get to our water supply?

“They could certainly disrupt it for a time. We are very rich in water in this state, with emergency sources that we can tap. We are very lucky along those lines. Places like Arizona and New Mexico would be much more vulnerable than New England and the Northeast.

Q: Are environmental issues getting the priority that they deserve?

“Oh, absolutely not. The environment is more in danger now than ever. There is no governor in the country, and certainly not a president, who is really thinking about taking care of the environment. With Iraq and other issues, they are getting diverted to other factors, but you can’t let the environment go. New York is changing and quickly.”

“Another thing we need to do is monitor the industries very carefully, air and water. We have too much of the ‘fox guarding the hen house’. We need more government sampling and looking into independent people who are not beholden to the industry to evaluate the data. The government does not want it. Some scientist comes along and says, ‘Look at what I got,’ and they want to control the scientists but the scientists don’t want to be controlled. Scientists are like artists. They don’t want to be restricted to where their minds can take them.”

“I’ve always liked the Indian (Native American) philosophy of taking care of the earth. They have some good basic ideas. In my family we have Catholic and Native American Indian. I like the Indian far better.”

“Within every person there’s a little boy or little girl. Society tends to pull it out of you. The curiosity, the interest, the wonder, it’s there. We restrict ourselves, but we are taught to. We’ve got to stay close to the natural world.”